Very few bands have the opportunity to release 15 studio albums in their career. However, the Brooklyn-based, They Might Be Giants are still plugging away after nearly 30 years of releases. The Johns’ [as called by some of their diehard fans] have managed to go from a duo who’d record music on answering machines, to Grammy Award Winners with a Platinum record. They played to a packed Byham Theater on Wednesday the 14th, but before the full band hit the stage, we had a very special surprise.
Jonathan Coulton is probably best known for his hit song “Still Alive” from the amazingly well-received and critically-acclaimed game Portal. His songwriting craft melds the nerdy pop sensibilities of Weezer, with the concise guitar-centric rock of contemporaries, such as, OK Go. He hit the stage, not entirely sure of how the audience would react. He opened his set with “Skullcrusher,” playing solo with his telecaster and singing, but by the end of the song, his band-mates rounded him out as a power trio. He got a huge influx of cheers when performing his big 2006 hit, “Code Monkey,” in which he was delighted by the masses at the Byham singing along. In fact, the last chorus was entirely sung by his fans, thus cementing his status as the perfect opening act for TMBG.
The nerdy crossover appeal from TMBG surely helped JoCo’s cause. His demeanor is both funny and devastatingly honest. During the 5th song of his 8-song set, his guitar cable subtly popped out. The rest of the band stared at him but continued playing, and when he found a moment of pause to sneak the cable back in, he went right back into it without a worry. But after the track ended, he joked with his audience about how he “is a professional” and how nothing of that nature would ever happen. He also spent some time plugging his fantastic new record, Artificial Heart. It, of course, features Marty Beller of TMBG on the skins, and his bassist-partner-in-crime, Chris Anderson.
When JoCo announced “This next song is one from a computer game you might have heard of,” the crowd knew that it was clearly time for “Still Alive,” and once again joined in the revelry of nerdiness, myself included! The folks who were not as familiar with the tune chuckled at the lyrical content of the song, thus making for an enjoyable performance. While Jonathan played roughly 40 minutes, it was TMBG that the crowd was clamoring for in their seats.
They Might Be Giants - Band Live at The Byham Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA on Sept 14, 2011TMBG came on after about 30 minutes of waiting for set-up. And they hit the stage running. John Flansburgh shouted at the audience to get up out of their seats and flood the floors of the theater, and even the folks up in the balcony/mezzanine area all rose to their feet to sing along to the songs. We were treated to a huge mixture of classic tracks, from “Ana Ng,” to “Particle Man.” As expected, the biggest cheers came for the tracks from Flood, such as, the aforementioned “Particle Man,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” But the variety of songs that permeated the set-list was enough to keep most fans happy, albeit I was slightly disappointed that my favorite song “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” was not on the list.
It was also amusing to hear some of the stage banter, but also the willingness of the band to make fun of themselves. Right before they went into “Careful What You Pack,” the Johns lamented on the fact that it was “the only good song from The Else.” The fact that the band realizes, after all of these years, you can still make fun of yourself and be brutally honest, engaging the audience and showing that they care about giving everyone an enjoyable live show.
The band also created a fun little “rift” between the lower floor and the mezzanine section. The Johns’ asked the folks downstairs to raise their right hands and chant “People!” while the rest of us upstairs pumped our left fist in the air shouted back “Ape!” This was for their tune “Battle of the Planet of the Apes.” Unfortunately the People won this bout, but I don’t think they’ll do so well next time…
They Might Be Giants - Band Live at The Byham Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA on Sept 14, 2011The guys would take “breaks” about every 5 or 6 songs in order to have fun with the audience or one of their best breaks, began a the skit The Avatars of They! There was a video screen behind the band for the entirety of the performance, diplaying synchronized videos [and music videos] while they played and showcased some live video feeds of the stage performance. The Avatars of They skit featured the Johns’ taking sock puppets and singing “Spoiler Alert” from off-stage, while the rest of the band jammed away. It was highly entertaining and a nice little break-up in the middle of the show.
John Linnell spent most of his time on keys, but took breaks in order to play his bass clarinet, which he said people refer to as “The black sax,” which brought about a cacophony of laughter from the nearly sold-out Byham. He also played some accordion on “Particle Man.” Right before “Istanbul” kicked off, guitarist Dan Miller played this amazing virtuosic acoustic guitar solo before they broke into the main tune. This is one aspect of TMBG that you must experience live, as words cannot describe his skill and talent.
TMBG went on to play two encores and also thanked everyone after their approximately 90 minute set by passing out stickers to every single person who came up on stage afterwards. Not only were they actually the ones handing them out so they could hang out and meet their fans, but they also were giving out free gifts for coming! You don’t see that with many bands these days. And in this case, seeing TMBG and Jonathan Coulton was clearly one of the best decisions any music nerd can make.